Ice loss from Greenland’s glaciers may level off

Simulation suggests long-term effect on sea level not as dire as some predictions

ICE ON THE MOVE The acceleration of iceberg calving from Greenland’s glaciers could level off by midcentury, researchers predict. Shown is the edge of Kangiata Nunata Sermia where the glacier meets the ocean. 

Dirk van As

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The increasing pace of ice breaking off Greenland’s glaciers and dumping into the ocean may not actually be a warning sign of runaway ice loss and catastrophic sea level rise, researchers report in the May 9 Nature.

Greenland’s ice sheet raises sea level when the surface melts or when glaciers flow into the sea and discharge icebergs. Scientists have been concerned that the last decade’s acceleration in iceberg calving would continue unchecked. Simulations have been unable to verify or refute those fears because it’s difficult to account for all of the processes, such as warm seawater’s melting of a glacier’s base, that influence how the streams of ice move and shed icebergs.

Now, Faezeh Nick of the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium and colleagues have incorporated all of these variables into a simulation that predicts the activity of four of Greenland’s main glaciers. In a scenario where global temperatures warm 2.8 degrees Celsius by 2100, the glaciers’ rate of ice loss eventually levels off, the simulation suggests. In total, the four glaciers could raise sea level by about 1 centimeter by 2100.

Applying the findings to the rest of the island’s glaciers, the researchers predict Greenland could add as much as 18.3 centimeters to sea level by the end of the century. That amount is about 35 centimeters less than a previous estimate that extrapolated Greenland’s current ice loss acceleration into the future.

An iceberg calves off Greenland’s Jakobshavn Glacier on May 10, 2008. In this time-lapse video, photos were taken every 10 seconds for an hour.
Credit: Jason Amundson, Martin Truffer and Mark Fahnestock/Univ. of Alaska Fairbanks

Erin Wayman

Erin Wayman is the magazine managing editor. She has a master’s degree in biological anthropology from the University of California, Davis and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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